The Issue Of Talk Show And Phone-In Programs

By Atty Philip N Wesseh (PNW)

If there are any particular broadcast programs that are popular in post-war Liberia, then they are the usual “Talk Shows” and Phone-In Program and Review Of The Newspapers on various radio and television stations. Prior to the civil conflict, the most popular activities were press conferences, request programs, news reporting, as well as special features, which were similar to talk show. Review of the newspapers was popularized by former student activist and leader Al Jerome Chedi of Charles Snetter’s Radio Monrovia, with his then usual morning program, “ISSUES IN THE PRESS.” The young Liberian at the time blended the show with innovation and creativity, for which it won the admiration of radio listeners.

Talk shows and phone-in programs were institutionalized during the time of the ceasefire, when the media, especially the electronic resurfaced after months of inactivity owing to insecurity because of the conflict. Its main objective at the time was to provide the forum for Liberians from all walks of life to advance suggestions and proposals on how to end the conflict. Whatever may be the particular show or program, they all carried the three code values of the media which is to inform, educate and entertain.

Although the country has graduated from that stage of insecurity, talk shows and phone-in programs have been a legacy of the years of conflict, as they continue to be major broadcast programs in the country. In fact, nearly all radio stations now have a talk show or phone-in program. But the issue here is that many persons do not know the differences and similarities between talk shows and phone-in programs. For them, all are the same. Yes, in some instances, they may seem the same because they provide opportunity for people to interact or voice out their views. Notwithstanding, there is a slight difference.

The issue of phone-in program became a major program when Dr. Amos Sawyer, then President of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) appeared frequently on a particular program that afforded the public to interact with him. The station was then, located in the former Ducor Palace Hotel up Broad Street, Snapper Hill.

Actually what is obtaining around here on some of the radio stations are not really what is known as talk show. Many of them should be considered as phone-in programs where listeners are asked to give their views on particular issues. Sometimes they deal with wide range of issues or a particular issue. Someone may ask: What’s your view on President Sirleaf’s address before the United Nations General Assembly? In such a case, the caller is at liberty to discuss any issue in that address.

Another good example of this is the Truth FM program: “WHAT’s YOUR VIEW?” and also other programs during which the hosts ask members of the public about their ‘take” (view) on a particular issue. This is where there is much concern because it has been observed that some of the callers speak with ignorance and mere fabrications. Some do so to get even with others.

Interestingly, sometimes they say these things as though they have the facts. In other words, they speak with authority and at times affirmatively, thus making listeners to believe what they have said.

The problem that has been associated with the phone-in program is the way and manner in which some of the hosts lay the premise or introduce the program, thus affecting the independent minds of the callers as they seemingly follow the line of the hosts. That is, in most instances, those who call always accentuate what the hosts strive to achieve. There would always be commonality of views; only because of the way the host lays the premise or introduces the program.

Again, this is difficult to control because the host harbors certain motive, and may even create unnecessary confrontation on the air with those who dare disagree with him or her.

Because the phone-in calls are instantaneous, sometimes it is difficult to have some control or to set the record straight, as the caller makes his or her comments and goes away. Just recently, someone claimed that the oil company bought the controversial Grace Minor’s land in Congo Town for US$700,000. Others corroborated this. But both the company and Madam Minor denied this.

“Talk show,” on the other hand, involves discussion with panelists or guests on particular issues or on general issues, as deemed necessary by the host. In some instances, there might be pros and cons on a particular issue. The host may “open the line”(as it is said by many hosts today) or accept the participation of the public on the issues being discussed, but must ensure that those participating do not deviate from the issue or misquote any of the panelists on the issue discussed; meaning that all those participating must restrict themselves to the issue being discussed.

Talk show topics can come about based on prevailing situation or a particular issue in the media that is of importance or public concern can be “talkshowlized.” For example, UNMIL Radio’s ‘FrontPage,’ is a talk show because it brings together panelists to discuss particular issues in the media. Another example is the LBS Super Morning Show of every Friday that brings together authorities on particular issues in the media for discussion.

Unlike the phone-in program, where the issue of identity remains a problem, as for the talk show, those invited or interviewed are always identified and known. How sure are we that some of the callers are calling their real names, as this is even done with some who write to newspapers under pseudonym?

This is why one dictionary defines talk show “as a program in which the host or hostess interviews or converses informally with guest celebrities, experts, etc, often with questions with comment from listeners and viewers.” Another dictionary refers to it, as” a radio or television program in which usually known persons engage in discussion or are interviewed.”

Also, there is another program which involves an individual as the host giving his views on issues, or discussing issues solitarily. This is not a talk show, but can be considered a special feature or program by an individual. This provides a forum for professional discussion, information or education by the individual.

Such programs or features can be likened to an expert view. People may call in for clarification or addendum or even disagree on a particular point. The Emmanuel Bowier ‘s program on Radio Monrovia, where he explains about some past events, is a clear example of special feature or program, with a particular name. In many of his presentations, he always reflects on the past by giving the listeners an insight of some past events. Just recently, I listened to one, involving the defunct People’s Redemption Council (PRC) on the situation of the late well-built William Wheyanti Jerbo, a former member of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). He was a resident of the Borough of Kru Town, where I resided at the time of the 1980 military coup.

Additionally, special feature or program also has a public relations angle. It could be about pending programs of a group, an organization or fraternity that want members of the public to know of a particular event. In such program, there would be guests who would discuss the issue and may seek the participation of the public, as this would help to encourage many persons to attend the event. Take for example the organizers of “Miss Liberia.” They could hold a special feature program on the radio to explain about the issue, as a marketing and advertising strategy. They could use the time of a talk show, being fully aware of the listenership of that show for profit-making purposes. But such may not be a freebie, as it is centered on raising funds.

How-be-it, such programs or features could also be political, economic or social, but what matters is always the truth, as expected of those in the media, because it is only by the truth, that credibility and respect would come about and also that readership and listenership would also increase to an unprecedented level.

So you see, not every talking program is a talk show. There are criteria, as stated above that categorize a program as a talk show. If someone takes the airwave as a producer on an issue, and personally speak on that issue, that is not a talk show. It can be categorized as a special feature. Similarly, if there is a phone-in program and callers give their views on issue that is not a talk show.

As we join others in celebrating the “Right To Know” day in this country, it is necessary to dwell on these issues, as people are sometimes confused over some of these programs, referring to all of them as talk show. More importantly, as we celebrate this day, those of us who participate on these programs, whether it is a talk show or phone-in, as well as special features, the truth should always be our guide, because many persons listen to these programs.

As research has shown, many persons listen to radio than to read newspapers. Therefore, considering the huge listenership of radio, those who participate on these programs should do so with all sincerity, honesty and trustworthiness, or else, these good media-related activities would be anathematized, which would be an antithesis to the essence of an open society. I REST MY CASE.

NB: The term “Talkshowlize,” is my own creation which means, “to treat as a matter/issue for talk show on radio or television, or “to make it a talk show issue.”

Atty. Wesseh, holds a B.A. degree in Mass Communication from the University of Liberia. He is also a graduate of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the same university. He has been in the practice of journalism for over 30 years.